Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Question: What do you do when everyone is afraid of your mother? She's not violent, and is typically a sweet, if uptight, person. But there's no dealing with anything with her - she just ignores and ignores till she can't anymore and then - blammo - big, fat fiasco.
The last time was in front of my spouse. There has always been eggshell-walking, and now spouse is included, although spouse claims that by not walking on eggshells, the situation might actually improve. Mom was much worse growing up, and although I love her, I prefer to do so from a distance. There's no option for therapy (for her, at least), and recent serious medical issues have only added to the mix of potential volatility. The fear comes from the fact that she is incredibly forceful - when she's right, she's right, and that's it. If you express your dissatisfaction, you're an enemy, or she decides she's done for good.
We've managed to talk her back from these types of brinks before, but the tension in the family is palpable and universal. There's also no telling what might set her off.
I especially feel bad for my spouse, who didn't sign up for this and shouldn't have to bear our family's burden of not having found a reasonable solution to Mom's temper. But spouse has been incredibly understanding both of me and of Mom's issues, and, despite the stress, insists this is something I need to tackle in therapy, while allowing my mother whatever time I am willing to give as she ages. I haven't gone to therapy, but I wonder what good it would do, knowing that Mom's not likely to ever change?
Answer: I think that, when a spouse "has been incredibly understanding" and asks you to get some therapy, then you honor that spouse by making calls, today, to research good family therapists. Anything else is just stalling.
Question: I have a very similar mom, and a less-understanding husband, and I can tell you that the therapy isn't about making your mom change (won't happen), but changing the way you react to her, which is the key. It can be incredibly stressful to balance a spouse with a difficult parent. A therapist can help you find the tools.
Answer: Yep, can't be repeated too often, thanks - we can't change others, only our responses.
But it's not so much about balancing the spouse and the difficult parent here; that's Step 2 (or 3 or 4). Step 1 is for the letter-writer to establish a firm enough sense of self to avoid getting sucked in, be it by a domineering mother or a needy co-worker or even by a perfectly healthy marriage. We don't get lost only in bad stuff.
A therapist can also help us recognize our own contributions to stressful situations, which we're usually the last to see - especially when there's a clear, easy place to lay blame, like this volatile mom. The letter-writer's spouse is right that tiptoeing makes things worse. It sends the message that ignore-ignore-boom, and holding an entire family hostage, is an acceptable way to behave.
Chat with Carolyn Hax online at noon Fridays at www.washingtonpost.com.